Friday, 13 June 2008

Prisons and the State

 

The French Wars between 1793 and 1815 involved government departments in the organisation and administration of large numbers of prisoners on British soil. In 1816 the first national penitentiary was opened at Millbank. It cost £425,000 and was the largest prison in Europe. Between 1842 and 1877 90 new prisons were built in Britain. But while the government was sucked more deeply into penal administration and reform, the running for the changes in penal policy continued to be made by a small group of MPs, including Romilly, passionate in their philanthropy.

Development of the prison system 1820-1880: a chronology

 

Date Event

1823

Peel’s Gaols Act

1824

Prison Discipline Act. These two Acts laid down rules for prisons and ordered JPs to inspect prisons and report to the Home Secretary. Most JPs ignored this.

1835

Home Office inspectors were appointed to visit prisons

1839

Prisons Act favoured the separate system. As a result of this Act Pentonville was opened in 1842.

1865

Prisons Act. The aim of the Act was to enforce a strict, uniform regime of punishment in all 193 local prisons but not try to reform prisoners through work or religion. It introduced ‘hard labour, hard fare and a hard board’.

1866

The Howard Association formed with the intention of keeping an eye on the prison system and the handling of convicts. In 1921 it merged with the Prison Reform League to become the Howard League for Penal Reform.

1877

Prisons Act. Local prisons were ‘nationalised’ so that they came under Home Office control alongside the government’s convict prisons. A three man Prison Commission was set up to run all the prisons in England and Wales.

The Gaols Act 1823

In 1823 the Gaol Act, followed by amending legislation the following year, tried to establish a degree of uniformity throughout the prisons of England and Wales. The legislation was informed by the idea of the penitentiary and spelled out health and religious regulations required the categorisation of prisoners and directed magistrates to inspect prisons three times a year and demanded that annual reports be sent from each gaol to the Home Office. Many local gaols ignored at least some of these regulations and Peel, reluctant to antagonise local sensibilities about independence, made no attempt to impose sanctions or a national system of inspection. It was not until 1835 that the reforming Whig government of Melbourne, with Lord John Russell at the Home Office, established a prison Inspectorate of five with only limited powers. From Peel's time onwards, home secretaries were interventionist and every government had to develop some sort of policy on the punishment of criminal offenders.

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